Not a single major candidate has signed up to take taxpayer-supported matching funds for his presidential campaign this year, signaling the death of the system that had controlled campaigns since the Watergate era.
Iowa’s caucuses are already in the books and New Hampshire’s primary looms on Tuesday, but out of the 324 people who had filed statements of candidacy with the Federal Election Commission as of this weekend, only one, Buddy Roemer, has requested funding.
“It used to be that only second-tier candidates accepted matching funds. Now not even they are doing so,” said Michael E. Toner, a former FEC chairman.
The taxpayer-funded system was implemented in 1976 with the hope of controlling money in politics. It is divided into two parts: During the primaries, candidates can apply for matching funds, and then each major party’s nominee can apply for a pot of money to spend during the general election campaign.
Both systems come with spending limits, which gradually began to chase candidates out of the system as they realized they could raise and spend more on their own.
Even as late as 2008, eight candidates took matching money in the primary. They included John Edwards, a Democrat who collected $12.9 million, Joseph R. Biden, a Democrat who received $2 million, and Tom Tancredo, a Republican who received $2.1 million.
Sen. John McCain, the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee, took the $84.1 million in general election money, though Democratic candidate Barack Obama became the first major-party nominee to reject the public campaign funds, breaking a primary campaign promise.
Blaming Mr. Obama, House Republicans voted last year to abolish the system, though their bill stalled in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
President Obama said he opposed abolishing the system, but has never introduced his own reform package.
Fred Wertheimer, founder of Democracy 21, which advocates an overhaul of campaign finance rules, said the system hasn’t kept up with the times. Every presidential nominee from 1976 through 2004 used the public funds for the general election, and most primary candidates regularly took matching funds up through 2004.
Mr. Wertheimer said this year’s campaign will expose how broken the system has become and will add to pressure for updating the dollar amounts involved.
“The system will not be used in this election because it’s out of sync with the modern cost of campaigns,” he said. “What’s going on in the current presidential election is going to make an overwhelming case for the fact that this system, which worked well for most of its existence, should be updated.”
This year, several lesser-funded candidates could have gone for public financing, but none has chosen to.
That includes former Sen. Rick Santorum, who through Sept. 30 had raised just $1.3 million, and heading into the Iowa caucuses last week told supporters that his end-of-year fundraising report was going to be “embarrassing.”